All throughout this week, Color contributor Aidan Johnston will be blogging daily from the NXNE Festival in Toronto. Make sure to check back everyday for great photos, stories and reviews from around the festival!
The first two days of NXNE often lie relatively dormant before party mode kicks into full gear like a jetlagged couch surfer who suddenly wakes up and wants to pound everything they picked up at duty free. In this brief moment of serenity, there is an opportunity to rest up and take in some of the wicked films supporting the festival. Of course the connecting theme of these films is music, for which programmer Ambrose Roche has organized a meticulous selection of docs, shorts and other melodically inclined films to help you forget Sweeney Todd. While I rarely justify entering establishments that don’t sell popcorn, I made an exception for the National Film Board and caught a double feature that presented two iconic spaces integral to their cities music culture.
Film #1 - Dan's Chelsea Guitars
Dan’s Chelsea Guitars is a portrait of the institutional New York shop and their struggle to maintain a small business in the big city. Gregarious shop owner Dan has a penchant for hiring people based more upon their ability to hangout than any skill or confidence, filling the place with a cast of larger than life characters. Like an idyllic barber or skateshop, you get the sense that this has become more of a community than a store, a place where quiet young kids come straight from school just to watch, where subway busker’s come in to share a story on a cold day, where you might meet the members of your next band. At one point when Dan is explaining to local loiterers his issues with texting and how he’s developing ‘Carpel Thummel’, it starts to feels like this could’ve been the pilot for a classic NY sitcom.
But a good sitcom always has some drama, and when the store is confronted by increasing rent prices, Dan must put on his biggest smile to face a harsh reality. At this point I’m so invested in the characters that I’ve begun picturing a heartwarming montage of rock 'n roll legends picking up their phones and saying “Chelsea Guitars? DAN'S Chelsea’s Guitars? In trouble! Of course I’ll play a charity concert.” While the story doesn’t come to such a wholesome conclusion its not without hope. These places play an indispensible role on the sidelines of music, doing everything for the love of what it brings together. People will always need places like Chelseas Guitars, where anyone can walk in and be simultaneously greeted with a handshake and a wisecrack. Sure Dan may tell you the same knock knock joke each time, but that’s just the way you'd want it.
Film #2 — Persecution Blues: The Battle for the Tote
Persecution Blues: The Battle for the Tote, is a documentary and another story of a celebrated space endangered by uncontrollable changes. Melbourne, Australia’s Tote Hotel stood as a symbol of the cities pulsating punk scene, being a venue to discover emerging talent and experience old favourites. The feeling of the Tote is instantly familiar—sticky fecal carpets whose smell permeates your nostrils for days, a packed dancefloor that leaves you glistening like a deli, bottled beer that never reaches temperatures below luke warm—everyone has an affinity for a bar like this in their hometown. A place to party hard and puke harder.
Understandable then, is the outcry in 2010 when the Tote was threatened with closure as the cities licensing laws began to change. The Tote was forced to reduce its serving hours after being pigeonholed as a ‘High Risk’ venue with more raucous nightclubs that had caused an increase in alcohol related violence. While punters knocked heads over heckles of “I'll bash yer Mum” in the city centre, the Tote maintained a relatively incident free existence in the more bohemian area of Collingwood. However as the area became more gentrified with residents, noise became an issue, with people complaining about the loud hipness that likely attracted them to the area in the first place. But punk music has never been about conforming, and a very sobering journey for the owners, managers, bartenders and fans of the Tote leads to a massive protest against city hall and the threat they pose against live music. Again, this showcases the power of smaller, beloved venues and their ability to create memories and feelings worth fighting to preserve.
You never hear of a super clubs closure bringing together 20, 000 but that’s the lasting appeal of places like the Tote; it stood for more than just a place to party. By the time pleas for change are answered it’s too late for the Tote, but serves as a victory for the future preservation of the cities music scene. A final coda showing former Tote owner Bruce Milne selling his vast record collection to pay his debts reminds us that victories for the people are not always one of the individual. Next time you’re at your own equivalent of the Tote, tip the bartender an extra buck, makeout on the dancefloor like it's your last kiss, and pee responsibly because you might regret one day not having that chance ever again.
Check back here tommorrow because experts are already calling Wednesdays the new Thursdays in anticipation of a stacked line up. Looks like hungover will be the new sober!
Aidan Johnston is your NXNE correspondent—biking, cabbing and crawling his way across Toronto to deliver coverage that's as unofficial as an after-party. Check back everyday and you might just find your new favourite band!